A national shooting champion, winner of India’s highest sports honour, philanthropist, conservationist and author of three books, Rajyashree Kumari, once a princess of the former princely state of Bikaner, Rajasthan, is hardly your quintessential laid-back royal.
The dynamic septuagenarian, who started shooting at the age of six, went on to compete in the highly competitive sport, which is broadly dominated by men.
By the time she was 15, Kumari, now 70, had emerged as an extraordinary markswoman, achieving 15 national titles and the largest haul of gold medals in the sport in the country. At 17, she notched up 92 out of 100 in the National Trap Shooting Championship, a record that has yet to be beaten. Five years later, at the national championships, she came second in trap shooting, beating all her male rivals save her father, who won gold.
“My shooting days started very early because we were a family of high sports achievers,” Kumari says. “My aunt, the Rajmata of Kota, was an ace shooter. My late father [Dr Karni Singhji], competed at the Olympics in Rome, Tokyo, Mexico and Munich. Such a sporty ecosystem was highly motivating for a young woman like me.
“I found it exhilarating to leave the palace and travel, meet people from different cultures and participate in international competitions representing India and Bikaner’s Thunderbolts Rifle Club.”
Being coached and mentored by her disciplinarian father further polished Kumari’s talent. A brilliant and strict mentor, he trained Kumari for hours a day, come rain or shine. “This rigor prepared me for the most intimidating competitions and helped me be confident against the toughest rivals,” she says.
Be it air guns, heaver rifles or clay pigeon shots, Kumari made her mark, literally, in all disciplines.
“As an egalitarian at heart, I found sport to be a great leveller. Because no matter how highly placed you are, it makes no difference on the sports field. Your competitor could be a king or a carpenter, you have to compete with him with the same rules’’.
Although Kumari doesn’t shoot any more, she says it was a privilege to represent India. “I met some wonderful people from across the country and the world and learnt much from them. The most memorable moment was receiving the Arjuna Award from the president in 1969. All these experiences enriched my life so much,” she says.
After marriage and motherhood, Kumari retired from her busy shooting career to focus on her duties in Bikaner as a social worker and philanthropist. Her strong work ethic helped her shine in this role too.
“My father used to tell us that Maharaja Ganga Singhji [his grandfather] worked very hard. When others would ask him, ‘Dada, why do you work so hard? You are the Maharaja’, his simple riposte was: ‘This is my job, I am just doing my duty.’”
This is the ethos, Kumari adds, that characterised all generations of the Bikaner royal family. “Because of my upbringing, I don’t look upon my work as philanthropy or charity. It is something I’m supposed to do and do it well. it is grassroots oriented, requires people skills and empowers the poor. What’s not to love?”
Running, maintaining and managing her ancestral properties, including several palaces and forts, is all in a day’s work for Kumari. She also leads several charitable trusts created by her late father.
“The Maharajas of Bikaner have historically maintained close ties with citizens and were involved in empowering them at various levels. Once royal titles were abolished in the country, my father set up a slew of trusts to continue to maintain our old forts and palaces and nurture a range of organisations to help people,” she says.
Whenever Kumari gets a break from her busy schedule, she says she loves to read. “Reading has been a childhood passion inculcated at an early age by my English governess Mrs Edwards. I also love decorating my home, Bikaner Palace, and give it a fresh look every now and then. This keeps my creative juices flowing. Gardening is also great therapy and I love adding fresh foliage to my garden.”
The former champion is also mentoring and sponsoring several budding and talented athletes of Bikaner, be it in the form of providing equipment or nutritional counselling.
“We also try to make our familial archives accessible to research scholars keen to study our history. We help provide international funding to optimise their operations and outreach,” she says.
Whenever she gets time from her day-to-day duties, Kumari loves practising her writing skills, a talent she inherited from her father. She has written three books, The Lallgarh Palace Home of the Maharajas of Bikaner (2009), The Maharajas of Bikaner (2012) and her latest, Palace of Clouds (2018). The latter is a semi-biographical account that evokes the romance of the rugged desert kingdom of Bikaner and its Rajput royal legacy against a backdrop of royalty, palaces, forts and hunting lodges.
As one reviewer put it: “The author brings to life a treasure trove of anecdotes and introduces us to a world of elegance, sportsmanship and cosmopolitan culture. A richly woven tapestry encompassing five generations of an aristocratic family's past and present. Tales of valour, battles and coronations, the splendour of the royal courts, the culture and traditions that made this Rathore state pre-eminent in the world.”